The Myth of Objectivity in Art

Jonathan Jagmin

“Well, you know, that’s just like, your opinion, man.” The Dude knows what he’s talking about.

All too often in any discussion of any form of art, one will hear the term “objectively” thrown around on a rather consistent basis. Normally, said term will be used in the configuration of “objectively bad,” as a way of asserting one’s negative opinion as being solid fact. It’s a weak tool for attempting leverage in presenting an argument, because when it comes to matters of art, there is very little true objectivity to be found.

Let’s back up for a moment and discuss a couple of simple concepts: subjectivity and objectivity. Subjectivity is simple enough to explain. Subjectivity is a personal reaction, your opinion or feelings on a matter, based upon personal preference, experience, beliefs and so forth. It is a truth that exists only in oneself. Objectivity is also easy to define, but more rigid in example. Objectivity is an immutable law, the hard analysis of an object by means of measuring its metric values. To put these concepts in the simplest of all possible terms, subjectivity is the expression of opinion, while objectivity is the statement of fact.

Understanding these concepts is paramount to wading through the multitude of analyses and reactions to works of art that come into being on a daily basis. Anything from the newest episode of Game of Thrones, to Academy Award-winning films like Birdman, to recent videogame releases like Fallout 4 are subject to legions of clashing measurements, opinions, and critiques on a daily basis. In too many instances, these critiques are the spark that creates a clashing of ideals, sometimes this will result in intelligent dissection of the subject material. Usually though, the end result is a “discussion” devolving into little more than name-calling and personal attacks. In this latter scenario, more often than not, the holy hand grenade of “Objectivity” is invoked; a critical strike against the opposition.

In truth, the concept couldn’t be more ridiculous, as there is very little true objectivity to be found when discussing works of art. It’s simple enough to be able to say, “Yes, this film is objectively functional because the camera was on, and images are appearing on the screen in front of me.” One can absolutely say “This album is objectively a working piece of music, because I can hear it and interpret these sounds as musical in nature.” However, there isn’t much beyond mere function that one can state is or isn’t anything from an objective viewpoint. Everything beyond mere function is opinion, and the problem lies in people confusing mass opinion for fact.

A phrase I hear all too often is something akin to “Metroid: Other M is a good game, but a bad Metroid game.” Just swap out the proper nouns and you’ll hear this boilerplate language used everywhere. This is an asinine statement. Essentially, the assertion being made is “if it didn’t have the word ‘Metroid’ in the title, then I would have no actual basis for complaint.” This type of sentiment stems from a mass opinion of what Metroid is supposed to be. The vast majority of people feel that Metroidshould be either a side-scrolling or first-person action-adventure game with minimal dialogue or story. Okay, that’s fair, since most of the games in the series conform to this standard. However, merely bucking tradition doesn’t make something objectively bad. The only basis for making such a statement is the existence of preconceived notion, which is merely an older opinion. The older age of an opinion does not make it more valid than newer, younger opinion. If that were the case, the original Star Warswould “objectively” be a bad movie. It was receiving negative, scathing professional reviews long before it ever became a social phenomenon.

What this all amounts to, is that no form of art can be objectively bad or good as a whole, unless it is simply non-functional. The very nature of art is an entirely subjective experience, its execution not based upon measurable metrics, but upon feeling and personal experience. The only intelligent way to observe or judge art is to gauge how accessible it might be to a population of individuals. A recent videogame like Legend of Legacy is a perfect example. The game is a spiritual successor to the SaGa franchise, and as such it is difficult, light on story, highly repetitive, and built from a conglomeration of odd gameplay systems with almost no in-game explanations or tutorials. Knowing this, it is hard to recommend such a game to just anyone. For a fan of games like Final Fantasy or Bravely Default, it would be hard to recommend something likeLegend of Legacy, especially if you’re looking for an experience heavy with story. On the other hand, for someone who wants a game like Romancing SaGa, Legend of Legacy would probably be a godsend, a modern-day fulfillment of that fan’s unique little desires. In the typical mold of videogame reviews, a professional website would take this analysis and assign it a numerical score of 6/10. To any regular passerby, this would appear as “oh, it’s a bad game”, when in truth it’s a game meant for a specific audience. The two are not synonymous.

This is the foundation from which my philosophies on art analysis arise. The simple fact is, down to my core, I do not like or enjoy a fair deal of modern videogame offerings. I have absolutely no interest in chasing down objectives in Fallout 4, advertising my kill/death ratio in Call of Duty, or building recreations of the “Death Star” inMinecraft. I am a minority in these opinions, but that does not make my opinions objectively wrong, nor does it make the legions of fans objectively correct in their assessment of these being “good” games. It simply means they are very, very accessible. It simply means that the fans have a louder voice than mine. Being loud doesn’t make a person right instead it just makes them more easily heard. Being more accessible doesn’t make Madden a good game rather it just means it’ll make more money. And let me clarify: under no circumstances do I consider any of those aforementioned titles to be “bad” games. I consider them widely accessible, just not for me.

This is how I choose to approach my analysis of any form of art or expression that may happen to drift through my transom. I do not attempt to act as a mouthpiece for the sum total of humanity, telling the world that Batman v Superman is factually an excellent movie and everyone should like it. I speak solely from my own personal experiences, and hopefully those that listen will glean something useful from them. After all, “It’s just like, my opinion, man.”


Why not love it then?

This Week in Geek, will bring you content just like this every week - absolutely FREE! Enter your address and click "Subscribe." Your email address is not shared with anyone, ever!

You have Successfully Subscribed!